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The Beat – Interactive Storytelling Series Part I

It starts with a beat.

In screenwriting, a beat is the smallest unit of story. It can be an action that propels the plot, a twist that alters the story’s direction, a shot that establishes tone, mood, theme; or dialog that reveals characters. Beats are the bricks in which the story is build, and it is how the audience experiences the story.

One of the steps of screenwriting involves writing out the beat sheet*, a list of all the story elements that can be assembled into the actual story. When seen this way, we can see how each beat effects one another; and when properly ordered, how the story unfolds. It’s a basic framework in which writers use to grow stories, adding details, shading and depth as needed to create a deeper resonant experience for the audience.

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean's heart screaming, "NO ONE LIES TO ME"

Then John Mehdi disagrees, and rips out the Dean’s heart screaming, “NO ONE LIES TO ME”

 

I like to think the beat sheet is a good framework to use when designing a game that wants to tell stories through its systems, mechanics and world, a game that provides players the tools, and vocabulary to craft his own experience and create his own story. A game where any meaningful action the player takes becomes a beat in their story.

I scrounged the wreckage for what food and materials I could find. A nearby fireaxe became the key in which I hacked scattered luggage for what treasures they held. When darkness descended, that same fireaxe bore me the gift of firewood. Then dried leaves, and a lick of flame from a liberated lighter birth me a flame to last me through the night, hopefully. Tomorrow, I had to see what else I could do.”

The Forest

First I’ll chop the tree, then I’ll chop that creepy figure standing in the distance there.

 

Of course the game has to respond in kind. Good games are build on strong player feedback, and these feedback range from cheerful celebrations of color and sound, impressive animated sequences, to digital loot that triggers that endorphin drip in your brain. These can be the beats of the story as well. “I got this fantastic sword from surviving an epic battle with the dungeon’s final demon.”

But it can’t just be a list of cool things happening next to one another.

Here, I’ll let Film Crit Hulk explain it.

“Stories are defined by cause and effect. Perpetually. Constantly. Vividly. Stories are built on that simplest of mechanisms. This causes that and that causes this and so on and so forth. It’s about setups and payoffs. It’s about action and reaction. It’s about information followed by dramatic consequence. Cause and effect lend meaning to events. They link scenes together. They give wholeness to seemingly separate ideas. Cause and effect are the linking of your chain. They make a story a story”*

hulk_reading_header__index

HULK READ! because hulk think that stories are the connection has with other human not-hulks.

 

So when the game responds to the player’s action with a beat of its own that moves the story forward, or reveal part of its world, it contributes to the players overall experience of his story. And when the response isn’t entirely predictable, it can become this constant back and forth, between player and system, between character and world, to create a story that’s unique to the player’s decision.

That’s what games can do that the other mediums can’t. Where their story has to be ordered as some point; filmed, written, animated and told, a game’s story can unfold as long as the player has meaningful actions to take, and the game has the responses to return in kind.

Or course, all this works under a certain context, and context is key in the telling of stories.

Hopefully, I’ll get to that idea next week.

Stray Thoughts

* – Another good example of this idea is Trey Stone’s and Matt Parker’s “But” and “Therefore” talk. Where they essential explain the idea of how each beat affect the following beat into order to create the story.

– I was trying to work the phrase “Player actions are the verbs of the game” somewhere up there, but it didn’t work. But I like it as a phrase, because it essentially sums up what I’m trying to do in thinking of game mechanics and features as vocabulary in telling a story.

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Craft work.

There’s a craft to storytelling.

The storyteller does not invent story; the storyteller utilized craft to invoke story. Images, music, vocabulary, style are all in the service of imparting ideas, emotions and characters in their audience’s mind.

There are tons on books on the craft of screenwriting, easily as many essays and thoughts on the process of novel writing. Poetry, song, painting have had years of studies devoted to the –ology of their particular type of storytelling.

Yet there is no similar craft for the kind of stories games can tell.

Early games borrowed a lot from traditional pen and paper RPGs, with tons of texts and the occasional image to prop them up. Later on, it borrowed the language of cinema, and brought it with it the cinematic experience, but also the unskippable cutscene.

 

Also include deep ruminations on the nature of war.

Also includes deep ruminations on the nature of war.

These days, both styles are wielded with immense skill and experience to give us the rollercoaster thrill ride of the Call of Duty series, the expansive, the lore filled text heavy Skyrim, or a deft combination of the two in Mass Effect. Yet these are all examples of games still appropriating other storytelling techniques in service to the story that the designers want to tell. Don’t get me wrong, they’re fantastic, and highly enjoyable but I don’t think they are all great examples of just how different game stories can be told.

It’s in the player experience; that should be key to the story that the game is trying to tell.

I'm a survivor!

I’m a survivor!

Games are interactive, the actions the player takes, the decisions that they have to make, the situation that the game places them in; these are tools in which games can invoke a kind of story to the player, making the experience a part of the greater story.

But we have no craft for that.

We do have terminology; phrases and concepts unique to the problem of telling stories in games. The most popular being “ludonarrative dissonance.” We’re throwing buzzwords like “player-authored”, or story generation around more as well, to achieve the holy grail of “procedural storytelling”. Granted, some of these are useful, but only up to a point of arguing about the merits of particular design.

More often than not though, we’re still in service of the game being fun, and the story of the game being secondary to that fun, that trying to tell a meaningful story with those mechanics is a lot like the story paragraph game: Entertaining,, but ultimately meaningless.

Obviously, I’m stumbling my way to some sort of a point here, in that I’d like to understand more about the kind of craft that games can employ in order to tell the kind of stories in can tell. What vocabulary can games employ in their use of mechanics, systems and other tools it has at its disposal to craft the kind of story for their players that resonate.

I have some ideas.

Let’s see if I actually manage to write them.

frustrated-writer-2

One of them has my bank code!

 


The Noob Tube.

I watch a lot of TV

There’s a lot of good television running. Currently on my slate is Orphan Black, Person of Interest, Elementary, Game of Thrones, New Girl and Arrow. Previously, I’ve watched seasons of Justified, The West Wing, The Wire, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Scrubs, Generation Kill, Fringe. The list is long and generally varied. If the AVclub covers it, I’ll probably watch it at some point.

Games can learn a lot from the storytelling structure of good television.

My current favourite series

See, television also advertises with Men holding guns.

Games have long been trying to ape film’s more cinematic style in their visual presentation and their storytelling style. In an industry that’s constantly in some sort of visual arms race, drawing from cinematic visual aesthetic is certainly a great strategy. But films are generally two hours long, with a storytelling structure designed to make the best use of that time. The classical Hollywood style is the oft repeated 3 act structure, usually with the mythic journey grafted on.

Games can stretch from anywhere between 5- 20 hours long. A Hollywood three act structure is going to seem limiting when your Act II lasts several hours and your audience might have stopped paying attention, either because the plot was lost in their meandering, or they can’t get pass certain gameplay sections. That isn’t it doesn’t work, and there are plenty of examples to cite with a strong storytelling in games emanating from the cinematic structure of storytelling.

Yet games have much more in common with Television.

Click here for comedy

“You’ve never read a book and 3 chapters in, the book goes, “what are the major themes of the book.”

Note: I originally expanded a bit more on the following thoughts on how games can draw from television’s storytelling style, but each point spiralled out into these massive walls of text. I’ll probably want to expand on them in individual posts on subsequent days then.

Hour Long Experiences

Research has shown that players play their games in hourly sessions, be it an hour or two, maybe three. Those sessions are further divided into 15 mins game play loops, where design feedbacks rewards, teases, plot development in an effort to keep players engaged, entertained and feel like their hour was meaningful. Television is similarly build from 15 min ACTs, usually written to its act breaks in order for ads to do their thing. Stories are twisted and turned based on that 15 minute structure, (A 30 min episode has a somewhat different structure, but the concept is the same, it’s writing to the act breaks) so audiences will stay tuned through the commercials.

Story Arcs and World Building

Serialized television have long story arcs spanning multiple episodes. During this time, they’re laying the groundwork for that story, building their worlds with locations, a cast of characters, and a thematic through line that keeps the premise and the story coherent. Games excel at world building, and arguably is the best medium at allowing its audience to best experience a world unlike their own.

Where television builds their worlds slowly, adding pieces to it when necessary to unfold longer stories, games can adopt the same method when parcelling out information about the world to the player.

Seasons == Sequels

Shows want seasons, sometimes 6 seasons and a movie, and there’s nothing more a publisher wants more than a sequel. When television goes into multiple seasons, audiences will remark that it’s a sign of its quality, and there are some seasons that are just better than others. Often, it takes some shows a season or two before it gets to telling that really great story, using the cast, world, and premise it has long since established to get around to it. Justified’s season 2 wouldn’t be possible with season 1.

Game sequels on the other hand, are more often thought of as milking the cash cow, rarely deviating too much from the original. Developers are more likely to design more of the same, but BIGGER in an attempt to placate, or satiate the fans of the series. There is a the possibility where games can develop it sequels as extensions of the original premise, market them as more seasons, more reasons to spend time with characters you like, game play mechanics you think are fun, and still have the leeway to explore, and iterate on what has been build before.

The Player Character and his Cast

We’re going to be spending several hours in the company of the player character. The best of which we can identify with, relate to, and hopefully feel some empathy for. We’d probably also want to like their supporting cast of characters. Snake and Otagon is probably one of the more famous bromances of games, and Nathan Drake wouldn’t be much of a likable character without Sully and Elena. Establishing a likable ensemble of characters enables the game to fill out more of its world with charm and personality, and attaches the player to the story that surrounds these characters. Good television often has strong ensemble cast; the downside of which is less focus is placed upon the central character. I thinks there’s a balance that can be explored, creating an interesting cast of characters around the PC, exploring their stories and their relation to the game alongside the game itself, and develop more than just 1 interesting character per game.

Summary

It’s probably too much to say that games should be emulating television entirely in their storytelling and conceptualisation. Yet while TV has since evolved multiple storytellings styles in the past decade, games have somehow moved at a much slower pace. Arguably, games aren’t always the medium in which story takes priority, but since television provides so many good examples of long form storytelling, world building, relatable characters, and hours upon hours of entertainment, there’s possibly a lot games can learn from how its done.

Stray Thoughts

– I’ve tried avoiding the word “Episodic” since that has troubling connotations when we recall what happened with Half Life 2, or virtually what other games promised back in the early 00s. but if Telltale has proven anything, episode gaming can work, and can span stories into a wider set of situations and plot. The Walking Dead is probably the best example of how episodic gaming, with a story structure that owes a lot of televised seasons can work.

– Grantland recently published an exceptional article on how Game of Thrones will change the future of television storytelling. It’s a bit optimistic to be sure, but the success of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Justified in this new era, while network television struggle beyond its few hits is possibly key to the article’s insight. At best, perhaps it’s prescience for future games as well, that we’ll do well to start chasing and consolidating niche markets, as the big mainstream guys dwindle into the few remaining IP.

– Themes are for 8th grade book reports.

– Of course, Television can, and often does work with a much larger ensemble cast, since they can cut away from the main character for quite a long time, and there are plenty more difference between the mediums that a one on one grafting is impossible. Hopefully, I’ll get down to penning my actual thoughts about how it might work.


Blog Necromancy.

We’re back.

It’s been a year, a year since I joined up with Ubisoft Singapore, to work on Assassin’s Creed. A year in which fantastic games have been released, and ideas have percolated in my head. A year where I actually taught a university master’s class in storytelling.

So I’m back here to focus some of the thoughts I’ve had so far, and as a more sustained attempt to journal my thoughts, stray or otherwise, about games and storytelling into something cogent, structured, meaningful. This year, I’m supposed to be embarking on a project where I can delineate the vocabulary of game storytelling, and various approaches to initial conceptualization.*

There’s a lot of misunderstanding regarding story and storytelling in the games industry. I can’t even begin to speculate why that is, without probably taking flak from my initial statement. Suffice to say, various designers, artists, animators and all sorts of developers disagree on what story actually is in the process of making of game.

Games, after all, historically aren’t an entirely narrative driven medium.

There have been great game stories, great games with barely a story and good stories in games that are just above interactive. As a medium, games develop and iterate so fast that it has yet to settle into any recognizable form and structure that you easily hang storytelling upon. The storytelling in Uncharted and Dark Souls are two very different beasts, and yet they both work.

Games need to develop it’s own storytelling vocabulary; perhaps stop borrowing from the language and aesthetic of just film, and branch out to other medium, such as comics, television, short film, and even novels. It’s getting there, as I suspect that we can point to various games that have unique styles of storytelling to them, that draw from all sorts of strange influences.

As games continue to grow, we’re going to have to find new ways to communicate bigger and better ideas to our audiences. We cannot keep circling the drain of good vs evil, human vs aliens, action movie plots that recycle the same basic idea over and over again, while neglecting the themes and story that inform the game world as a whole, and developing systems that steal attention away from our thought processes. Games are a system of mechanics and dynamics, but that’s not all they can be.

But I’m probably worrying too much.

We’ve seen some fantastic narrative games lately. Telltale’s Walking Dead, the beautiful elegiac Journey, Irrational’s ambitiously flawed Bioshock: Infinite. Even the rebooted Tomb Raider was a solid story told fantastically, rooting its narrative in empathizing and understanding its title character.

The indie scene also continues to churn out some interesting gaming experiences such as Kentucky Route Zero, and Proteus, and Kickstarter continues to give hope for the revival of those epic RPG journeys full of ideas, themes and strange imaginative concepts.

I’d just like some common way for us to be able to discuss the future of game storytelling.

Stray Thoughts

– I seem to have been beaten to the punch about creating a storytelling vocabulary. Ernest Adams tries to solve the interactive storytelling problem by laying down the smack on misguided preconceptions about what interactive storytelling can be. I’ve read through the article, while nodding my head in agreement, but have yet to really delve deep into his massive PDF thesis statement.

– Back on Gamasutra, the Death of LucasArts, once a premier interactive storytelling studio, sparks a few nostalgic reminiscence. It’s been a while since I played any of those, and I have fond memories of Full Throttle, and Monkey Island, but I wasn’t playing games when these were at the height of their popularity. I feel like I may have missed out.

– I really hope that I’ll be writing more in the blog, if I’m not too distracted by building netrunner decks and constantly losing on OCTGN. 😦 I need netrunner tips.

 


Deus Ex: Human Review

I spent two weeks of my youth relentlessly playing the original Deus Ex.

Every night, for those two weeks, I travel halfway across the country from my army post, to spend 3 hours of the only time I had in actual civilization in the midst of computerized conspiracy. On weekends, I barely bothered with a social life that was the only thing keeping me sane amidst the military madness of my national service. It was Deus Ex, and nothing else. It’s an indelible part of my gaming history, and it seemed I was not alone. It’s depth of gameplay, sense of aesthetic, and myriad of gaming concepts touched a whole slew of then hardcore gamers, clamoring for more. 10 years later, we get Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

It isn’t perfect, but it’s close.

Creepiest level by far.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution does manage to tug the nostalgic strings of those two weeks of gaming nirvana. With all its concessions to modern gaming, it keeps many of the original’s gaming concepts that I love intact, albeit with some tweaks and iterations, and introduces a few new ones that are interesting in the context of the game. Perhaps it can’t beat how the original influenced my concept of what games can be, but it does a pretty damned good job is reminding me that this sort of game play hasn’t died and perhaps there’s hope amidst whatever new trend will emerge in the AAA space that isn’t military shooter #314, F2P madness or button press to win content tour.

I’m glad that the small open world game play is still viable. That Deus Ex hews closely to a hub city structure, where I get to criss cross on various storied side quests, unfolding the world of transhumanist sci-fi one hack at a time. I like the freedom the game gives me to explore all my options, rarely rushing me through the levels in some vain attempt to put tension on my actions. I love the attention to detail in the level design, building a place that is at once game-ified, but plausible in vision. I love that the story in Deus Ex isn’t just in the cutscenes, but in how I move through the world, uncovering bits of conspiracy, debating philosophies with terrorists and humanitarians and in all the incidental detail borne from the back story that only a geek like me might recognize.

Home, Noir, Home

It still falls short in several areas though. For one, it’s a lot more deterministic that the original’s simulationist approach to goals and levels. There are one too many consequences in this game based on decisions that seemed escapable but weren’t, and many of these consequence end up being a footnote and a reward right after. The original had consequence far down the line in the game, a convention on the Witcher was able to successfully incorporate.

Then there were the boss fights, perhaps a note passed from Squeenix, or a rogue idea that came from Metal Gear rather than the original’s approach in designing climatic encounters. Either way, they were tedious affairs that put the player in a situation from which there was little preparation. How I would love to find a kill-switch.

And the ending, oh the disappointing ending. 30 hours of stealth story gameplay, 30 hours to uncovering truths and debating nuances, 30 hours of character motivation only to be dumped in puerile philosophy lessons. There was no emotional cartharsis, no resolution to characters and their stories. No consequences from the final decision, no emotional impact. Just a series of slideshows.

It’s a shame, because up to that point, Deus Ex does a stellar job in actualizing its science fiction setting. It’s definitely got a firmer grip on its science than the original and it wisely chose to focus more on characters in the majority of the games. Major and minor characters alike felt well-realized for the setting, and nothing highlighted that more than the conversation battles, a truly innovative use of dialog trees and dialetics. Conversation as a boss fight, ducking, weaving, coaxing, crushing, empathizing to get what you want. It was a joy to play. Sure I may be debating computerized characters and pre-written dialog, but it’s a pleasure that such empathetic nuance is brought in as part of the game-play, instead of relegating it to dialog no one reads, or backstory few else cares about.

That way lies the sequel, hopefully.

I’m not sure DXHR will engender as many playthrough as I did the original. Beyond that initial two weeks, I must have played the original at least 3 or 4 times, discovering new things each time. I still have yet to try out The Nameless Mod, a massive total conversion of the original, but I’m not my eyes can stand the dated graphics, with or without augs. I’m glad that I manage to experience the game once over, and perhaps another time later if the DLCs prove worthwhile. The game play is solid, and still touches the pleasure centers of my gaming brain. There are probably certain parts of the game I’ve yet to uncover, though I suspect its modernization allows for less hidden and emergent content that the original did. Yet for a story that managed to get it hooks in me at the start, it’s disappointing ending is unlikely to be upgraded away. What a shame.

Stray Thoughts

– SINGAPORE REPRESENT! Also, the second best level by far in terms of sneaky sneaky gameplay. Only the Hengsha Docks comes close in layout, challenge and interest. Too bad it’s Singapore in name only. Now if only the guards spoke Singlish, I would have spared some of them. As it is, bunch of foreign workers here to steal our jobs and our scientists. Yeah, that’s a headshot.

– I really do like some of the characters introduced and cannot state just how disappointed I am in not being able to have a final discussion with Francis Pritchard, or to settle issues with Megan Reed, or see my Boss deal with the fallout of the events. The best moment I had was in rescuing Malik, but even then, I felt a little short-changed in how it was setup. Malik could have at least done more before and after.

– DXHR is better than Mass Effect 2, in almost all areas of RPGing, shooting and science fictioning.

– Playing DXHR makes me wanna watch Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex.

– That hacking mini-game is pretty neat. Best mini-game in an RPG so far.

Now that's a level worth exploring. Shame it's a Skybox


Game Design Philosophy Guidelines.

This isn’t so much a ruleset and several thoughts i’ve accumulated over the years as I consider the prospect of being a game designer.

This is more like the underlying fundamentals that I begin with as I think up game designs and begin to write more game design documents. Apart from the other stuff I’ve learnt such as the Mechanics / Dynamics / Aesthetic triptych, this is more an ongoing philosophy I’m building as I think about games. It’s mutable as I learn more, discuss more and get feedback, but I think it’s a good framework to consider when thinking of games and the stories I can tell with those games.

Onwards.

1> Games are a series of interesting decision. – Soren Johnson.

Games are a unique interactive medium. Making decisions is the method in which the game engages the player into its system. These decisions can range from anywhere between risk vs reward scenario, what to do next, where to go. The player is essentially trading time for a sense of reward in the game, and that sense of reward derives from making the right decisions at moments in the game. I don’t think this means that all decisions have to be big, hugely consequential decisions, just that those decisions are well defined within the context of the game and clear about the general outcome, if not the entire outcome.

We have to make decisions in games, that how we interact with them. If it’s just instinctual rote activity, the game becomes boring. WoW, for instance, has a fairly rote pattern of skill use after some time. Playing as such renders the game boring to all but the most masochist of players. But ask any wow fan, and they don’t cite the combat system as why they play. The decisions to be made in Wow is the efficient use of time to get the best gear, through whichever points are in vogue. The combat is just a method in which to get there. The skills are not the interesting decisions, it where to do with those skills that’s the interesting bit. Games without any interesting decisions are less interactive, because there’s little for the player to be engaged with.

These decisions also lead me to the second point; in the process of considering these decisions, players should be frustrated a little, because …

2> Games are the art of enjoyable frustration. – Andrew P. Mayer

Gamers want to be challenged. That’s not that controversial a statement when we realize the appetite for challenge differs among people. Some are content to be challenged with the concept of time, simply figuring the most efficient amounts of click to get to get  a sense of rewards, (i.e. Facebook games, Diablo). The frustration lies in the sense of time they’re fighting against. Others prefer a more mental challenge, or an uncompromising system that punishes minute mistakes, (i.e. Starcraft, Demon’s Soul) Games as enjoyable frustration demonstrate a safe environment in which we can conquer challenges and thus feel in control of our situations. It’s that rewarding feeling of beating a challenge that often more enjoyable than just a series of activities. The frustration comes in trying to beat the challenge.

Frustration isn’t about battling horrible UI, or poorly implemented design decisions, it’s about finding a careful balancing act between not giving players that easy a time such that they feel they’re wasting it, and enough of a leeway, and an idea on how to beat the challenge. This frustration is important, because it’s a key part of how players experience the game, and a key part of how they tell themselves they’ve conquered a particular game. That’s their personal narrative, which leads to…

3> The player’s narrative is more important than the game’s narrative

The stories we best remember are the ones that we can best relate to. In games, this often means the stories of what happened to us.

This doesn’t mean games can’t tell a story, it simply means that games are much better at making players feel as if it’s their story, not that they are watching someone else’s. Games can often provide the narrative tools in which players form their own stories. In civilization, it’s how your civilization rose up from the ancient age to conquer the world, in starcraft, it’s how you fended off the zerg rush and pounded your opponent with mass reapers. When we can insert our own imagination into the story, when the game supports our telling of tale, we can identify with the game better.

What’s difficult is getting the players to relate to that story. Supposing I want to tell a story that more epic, that touches of much greater ideals than good versus bad, or corporations are corrupt, and aliens are evil. It’s tougher to get an audience to relate to material they may not always be familiar with. Hegelian dialetics is more often than not going to fly over the heads of the average gamer, but yet seems to be one of the core tenets of Fallout: New Vegas. Similarly, Planescape explored the existential anguish of a man who has lived a thousand lives. Which of us gets a chance to do so.

What game can do is present it in the form of the player’s story, yet still introducing the player to these ideals, through whichever narrative tool a game has at its disposal.* Games are suited to this, we have an enraptured audience when the game is good. We can take the time to explore some concepts, because …

4> Games don’t need to say something, but they should be about something

This one is more a refutation of Richard’s Bartel’s original assertion that games must say something. I don’t games can say anything in particular. By the nature of their interactivity, they can say multiple things about a single subject. Games, unique to any other medium can react to the player’s input, and thus create branching paths, multiple outcomes, and various story threads. It isn’t limited to a linear narrative.

This is a semantic argument, as I’m not saying games can’t say anything, but that they can say multiple things on a single subject. Essentially, be about something, but be about the multiple perspective on a subject. Take for instance Brenda Brathwaite’s Train. The game itself doesn’t say anything. As a collection of mechanics, sans the knowledge of its reason, it’s a fairly simple game about transporting resources. The game doesn’t really say anything until it’s designer mentions what its about.

In other words, “art reflects the spectator, not the artist.”

Stray Thoughts

*- I should probably try and categorize some ways in which games can tell stories. Cutscenes are a perennial favourite, as is the level mise-en-scene. But I’m fairly certain that it’s worthwhile to sit down and think about some other ways in which games present a story from the designers point of view, and contrast it when it’s a more player owned story. Maybe that’s a series of posts I can begin.

– There’s always the case of a lot of this stuff sounded more awesome in my head than when I actually wrote them out. Maybe I really should be writing this late at night, when I’m not neurotic about my word choices.

– Interesting decisions tend to be a huge umbrella. Solving puzzles are composed of interesting decisions. What if I were to do this there, etc. The decisions are always what do I do, what can I do, and what tools do I have to do it.


The best games of 2010: Part I

The following is my list of best games I’ve played in 2010. There isn’t really a consistent criteria, just games that have opened my eyes, given me a wholly unique experience, is a fantastic expression of an idea, or just ate away a lot of time that I’m glad I gave away. They are in some form of order.

8> Dead Rising 2.


4 years in the making; the sequel to one of my favourite games of all time is exactly what I wanted in a sequel. It’s wacky zombie killing adventure, this time chainsaw paddle blades, wolverine claws and the automated Stephen Hawking kill chair.  As zombies may be entering the mainstream pop culture du jour, Dead Rising 2 remains one of the best expressions of just how goofy the idea is, and how seriously we can take it.

Take for example the daughter part of the story, it’s a nice touch in an otherwise balls to wall game of insane zombie killing action. Sure, I can feed her medicine while dressed in a top hat and a mankini, but the intent of trying to get at an emotion beyond just awesome killing or desperate survival elevates this game just beyond B-grade enjoyable pulp. The rest of the game just mashing on the necros, but every so often, you can be reminded why we bother.

7> Nehrim


A German mod team takes 4 years to show that they have much better imagination that world creation abilities that Bethesda. Nehrim is a mod that makes full use of Oblivion’s potential, but building a world that seems at times plausible, at times picturesque, but all fantastic. Playing the game is like wandering through a fantasy novel; meeting the people and stumbling into some incredible locations, being yanked along by a plot that seems not to stop, and coming into set pieces that Bethesda can only wished they had originally dreamed off.

In Nehrim, you’ll sneak your way into a sieged city, trudging your way through its smoking ruins, you’ll delve deep into tunnels, looking for the lost mega-city buried beneath. You’ll trek cautiously through a haunted forest, only to arrive to a site of massive devastation. No two dungeons are alike, no two locations are similar. It’s a game that’s build a world out of sheer imagination and grit and it’s worth the time to see what mod teams can do, when they put their mind to it.

6> Limbo


Limbo is this year’s Braid, and arguably a much better expression of an artistic idea. It’s a game that wears its aesthetic perfectly, the quiet echo of its soundtrack against the haunting imagery of its silhouettes upon shadows, a platform game with incredible simple mechanics, telling a simple story with just art. Also, those death animations are kinda cool.

5> Shatter


Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to be smitten by this. It originally looked to be just an update to the old Arkanoid/Breakout gameplay, with tweaks to the gameplay mechanic. Playing it, on the other hand, is a different story. Props goes to the awesome soundtrack, which I could just listen to without playing the game, but goes a long to providing that “zen thing” trance groove the game will lull you into once you get going. Whatever the case, it’s nice to see classic gameplay mechanics get a spit and polish and remind us why they are classic in the first place.

Here’s the soundtrack because it’s just that awesome.